Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review: Certain Women

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
Kelly Reichardt's films typically emphasize atmosphere, character and insight over story and, often, silence as a method of creating tension and drama more so than dialogue. Her latest, "Certain Women," typifies this approach as it tells the story of three different women who live against the isolated backdrop of the mountains in Montana, where the most noise you'll likely hear is a train occasionally passing through.

The three stories are not necessarily connected, although there are a few plot points that spill over from one to another, and there's not exactly a unifying theme. But this does not particularly matter as all three stories are compelling in their own way.

In the first story, the great Laura Dern plays a lawyer whom we learn as the film opens is having an affair and is representing a client (Jared Harris) who was injured by a workplace accident and is seeking compensation. Dern's character is frustrated that the man doesn't appear to understand that since he took payment up front from his place of work, he has severely limited his options going forward. However, one night, he takes a hostage at his former workplace and Dern is called in by the police to act as a negotiator.

In the second story, Michelle Williams and her husband - who happens to be the man with whom Dern was having the affair in the first story - are planning to build a home in a mostly deserted section of land. They spot some unused building material on the land of an elderly man who lives nearby and the pair convince him to sell them the material. But he later appears to regret the decision. Meanwhile, Williams and her teenage daughter appear to be at odds with one another.

And in the third story, a good natured farmhand (Lily Gladstone) stumbles into a night class on "school law," which regards student rights, and finds herself fascinated with the class's teacher (Kristen Stewart), whom she joins every night after class at a local diner. The two strike up a friendship, but one wonders what exactly it is Gladstone hopes to achieve in it.

In some ways, I've likely made these stories sound more dramatic than they actually are. Reichardt's films - especially "Wendy and Lucy," "Meek's Cutoff" and "Old Joy" - are slowly paced (not a criticism) dramas in which characters deal with recognizable life issues, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. She uses silence to fill in the gaps between what characters say and what they clearly want to say. This is definitely a ploy used in the third story of "Certain Women," in which we can't quite determine whether Gladstone's character is attracted to Stewart or merely sees a kindred spirit.

Of the three, I found Dern's the most compelling outright, whereas the Gladstone-Stewart story is the most heartrending. The middle story with Williams is good enough, but it might be a bit too slight, even for Reichardt's standards, although the performances are compelling.

In essence, "Certain Women" is a trio of well made short films strung together as a feature. And while a unifying theme between the three is a subject for debate, the picture does a good job of portraying the solitary lifestyle of the Montana women who are the protagonists. It's also a good starting point for those unfamiliar with Reichardt's work and a great showcase for its three leading ladies.

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